What is a Group Facilitator?

Compiled by Sandor Schuman

In the Lewinian tradition, the trainer conceived the group operation as a process of cooperative inquiry, after the model of action research.  His role was to aid the group in getting as much relevant and well-validated data as possible into their discussions.

Kenneth Benne
"History of the T Group in the Laboratory Setting"
in T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method: Innovation in Re-education
Leland Bradford, Jack Gibb, and Kenneth Benne, Editors
John Wiley and Sons, 1964, page 106.

… a leader is needed who plays a role quite different from that of the members. … This type of approach to group processes places the leader in a particular role in which he must cease to contribute, avoid evaluation, and refrain from thinking about solutions or group products.  Instead he must concentrate on the group process, listen in order to understand rather than to appraise or refute, assume responsibility for accurate communication between members, be sensitive to unexpressed feelings, protect minority points of view, keep the discussion moving, and develop skills in summarizing.

Norman R. F.  Maier
"Assets And Liabilities In Group Problem Solving:
The Need For An Integrative Function"
Psychological Review, 1967, Volume 74, Number 4, Pages 239-249.

[A] facilitator's job is to focus on how well people work together. The purpose of this focus is to ensure that members of a group can accomplish their goals for the meeting. The facilitator trusts that each member of the group can share responsibility for what happens, whether it involves calling the members to remind them of the next meeting, making sure that each person has an Opportunity to contribute to a discussion, or seeing that the agenda serves the group's purpose. The effect of this sharing can be to equalize the responsibility for the success or failure of the group (in whatever way that group has defined its goals and function) and to allow more people to have control in determining what happens within the group and what decisions are made.

Brian Auvine, Betsy Densmore, Mary Extrom, Scott Poole, and Michael Shanklin
A Manual for Group Facilitators
The Center for Conflict Resolution, 1978, page 2.
See also, Chapter 1, Introduction: What we mean by facilitation, pages 1-6.

To facilitate means "to make easy." The group facilitator's job is to make it easier for the group to do its work. By providing non-directive leadership, the facilitator helps the group arrive at the understandings and decisions that are its task. In a consensus group the facilitator's focus is on the group and its work. The role is one of assistance and guidance, not of control.

Michel Avery, Brian Auvine, Barbara Streibel, Lonnie Weiss
Building United Judgment: A Handbook for Consensus Decision Making
The Center for Conflict Resolution, 1981, page 51.

The primary role of a facilitator is to assist parties to have a constructive dialogue. Facilitators usually help groups set an agenda and manage the process of discussion. ... For example, facilitators help the parties to recognize how their own styles of interacting or the institutional prejudices that they embody may interfere with constructive problem solving.  Here the objective is to promote understanding among the parties.  Additionally, facilitators may propose a series of process steps to keep the discussion on target.  Facilitators may also explicitly help parties find a mutually agreeable solution to a dispute.

Barbara Gray
Collaborating: Finding Common Ground for Multiparty Problems
Jossey-Bass, 1989, page 163.

The facilitator's role … is to lead the group in drawing out answers, building a vision and developing plans that motivate everybody to achieve agreed upon goals - in short, to win.  The more input the manager collects and channels, the more creativity is released.  The facilitator functions much like the conductor of a symphony, orchestrating and bringing forth the talents and contributions of others.  The facilitator is also a communicator.  Working with decentralized structures such as networks, small teams and cross-departmental task forces … the facilitator fosters communication and understanding between the units.

Laura Spencer
Winning Through Participation:
Meeting the Challenge of Corporate Change with the Technology of Participation

Kendall/Hunt Publishing, 1989, page 12.

... a facilitator is a person who helps a group free itself from internal obstacles or difficulties so that it may more efficiently and effectively pursue the achievement of its desired outcomes for a given meeting.  … In the purest sense, when wearing the ‘facilitator’s hat’ an individual acts as a neutral servant of the people.  By that I mean the person focuses on guiding without directing; bringing about action without disruption; helping people self-discover new approaches and solutions to problems; knocking down walls which have been built between people while preserving structures of value; and, above all, appreciating people as people.  All of this must be done without leaving any fingerprints.

Thomas Kayser
Mining Group Gold 
Serif Publishing, 1990, page 12.

[A facilitator is] A person who serves as the director and tracker of the group’s discussions, deliberations, and process.  This person does his or her best to remain neutral.  He or she is not involved in the content discussion of the group.  This person is, however, a deliberate manipulator of the process and flow of the group’s work.  He or she manipulates what the group does so as to maximize full participation, to minimize individuals dominating or interrupting the group, and to optimize the group’s performance and satisfaction.  Note that the word manipulate is consciously used here not to call up all the evil connotations but for its precise meaning of “to manage or utilize skillfully” (Webster’s Seventh New College Dictionary, 1972).

Allen Moore and James Feldt
Facilitating Community and Decision-Making Groups
Krieger Publishing, 1993, page xvii.

Facilitation is about process ‑ how you do something ‑ rather than the content ‑ what you do.  A facilitator is a process guide, someone who makes a process easier or more convenient.  Facilitation is about movement ‑ moving something from A to B.  The facilitator guides the group toward a destination.  Facilitation makes it easier to get to an agreed destination.

Dale Hunter, Anne Bailey, and Bill Taylor
The Art of Facilitation:  How to Create Group Synergy
Fisher Books, 1995, page 1

The facilitator's job is to support everyone to do their best thinking.  To do this, the facilitator encourages full participation, promotes mutual understanding and cultivates shared responsibility.  By supporting everyone to do their best thinking, a facilitator enables group members to search for inclusive solutions and build sustainable agreements.

Sam Kaner with Lenny Lind, Catherine Toldi, Sarah Fisk and Duane Berger
Facilitator's Guide to Participatory Decision-Making
New Society Publishers, 1996, page 32.

Facilitation is a way of providing leadership without taking the reins.  As a facilitator, your job is to get others to assume responsibility and to take the lead. … Rather than being a player, a facilitator’s job is to act more like a referee.  That means you watch the action, more than participate in it.  You control which activities happen.  You keep your finger on the pulse and know when to move on or wrap things up.  Most important, you help members define and reach their goals.

Ingrid Bens
Facilitating with Ease!
Participative Dynamics, 1997, page 5.

A person who makes a group’s work easier by structuring and guiding the participation of group members. Facilitators generally work in a meeting setting, but can also work with a group outside of meetings.  A facilitator may also take a neutral (questioning and listening) role when helping others.

Fran Rees
The Facilitator Excellence Handbook
Jossey-Bass Pfeiffer, 1998, page 11.

Facilitation is the design and management of structures and processes that help a group do its work and minimize the common problems people have working together.  Facilitation is therefore a neutral process (with respect to the content and participants) that focuses on: what needs to be done; who needs to be involved; design, flow, and sequence of tasks; communication patterns, effectiveness, and completeness; appropriate levels of participation and the use of resources; group energy, momentum, and capability; the physical and psychological environment.

Tom Justice and David Jamieson
The Facilitator's Fieldbook
American Management Association, 1999, page 5.

Facilitation is the impartial management of meetings designed to enable participants to focus on substantive issues and goals.  Facilitators develop an agenda for each meeting, enforce ground rules of conduct, promote interaction and communication during meetings, and bring issues to closure.  A facilitator remains neutral concerning the content of the group's work and typically has no decision-making authority within the group.

Michael Poirier Elliott
"The Role of Facilitators, Mediators, and other Consensus Building Practitioners," in The Consensus Building Handbook: A comprehensive Guide to Reaching Agreement.  Lawrence Susskind, Sarah McKearnan, and Jennifer Thomas-Larmer, editors. 
Sage Publications, 1999, page 207.

[Facilitation is] … the art of leading people through processes toward agreed-upon objectives in a manner that encourages participation, ownership and creativity from all involved.

David Sibbet
Principles of Facilitation:
The Purpose and Potential of Leading Group Process
Grove Consultants International, 2002, page IV.

A facilitator … is a process guide; he or she does not evaluate or contribute substantive ideas to a discussion.  The facilitator is the servant of the group, not its leader, and works to ensure that the group accomplishes its goals.  He or she does this by offering process suggestions, enforcing ground rules agreed to by the group. Keeping discussions on track, protecting group member from attack, and ensuring that all members participate.

David Straus
How to Make Collaboration Work:
Powerful Ways to Build Consensus, Solve Problems, and Make Decisions
.  Berrett-Koehler Publishers, 2002, page 118.

Group facilitation is a process in which a person whose selection is acceptable to all members of the group, who is substantively neutral, and who has no substantive decision-making authority diagnoses and intervenes to help a group improve how it identifies and solves problems and makes decisions, to increase the group's effectiveness.

Roger Schwarz
The Skilled Facilitator:
A Comprehensive Resource for Consultants, Facilitators, Managers, Trainers, and Coaches
(Revised Edition)
Jossey-Bass, 2002, page 5.

A self-reflective, process-person who has a variety of human, process, technical skills and knowledge, together with a variety of experiences to assist groups of people to journey together to reach their goals.

Christine Hogan
Understanding Facilitation: Theory and Principles
Kogan Page, 2002, page 57.
See also, Chapter 5: Definitions and metaphors of facilitation, pages 49-58.

When I introduce myself I say I am a “facilitator and are you familiar with that job title?” - and if someone is not, I say something like “we are the people who help groups communicate for mutual understanding or more efficient task work, bringing people together to pool their knowledge and experience across disciplines, organizational roles and cultures.”

Lisa Heft
“The lexicon of dialogue and deliberation.” E-mail message to the National Coalition for Dialogue and Deliberation discussion list [ncdd@email.edgateway.net] [www.thataway.org] September 12, 2005.

… someone who is trusted by the team, understands the organization’s business, and is driven to help the team accomplish its objectives, not his or her own objectives. The greatest benefit of using such a facilitator is that it allows the leader of the team to participate fully in the discussion without having to worry about playing a more objective, supporting role.

Patrick Lencioni
Death by Meeting
Jossey-Bass, 2004, page 247.

Sandor Schuman is a storyteller, group facilitator, and collaborative process advocate. He helps organizations create and tell their stories and make strategic decisions. He is editor of the IAF handbooks on groups, meetings, facilitation, and collaboration, and writes the blogs, Communication, Collaboration, Consensus and Another Side to the Story. For his take on what is a group facilitator, see his blog post, My Name is Sandy Schuman and I Am a Group Facilitator.